Changing the Game: Using Potential Wildfire Operational Delineation (PODs) for a Better Future with Fire


FACNET (Fire Adapted Communities Information Network) is one of my favorite information sources.  This article was originally posted on the Fire Adapted Communities Learning Network Blog and is reproduced here with their permission.

The whole thing is worth a read and I’ve included some excerpts that give you a taste for it. It probably won’t surprise you that I like the combination of local knowledge and spatial analytics. Check out the video about the Arapaho Roosevelt NF and the Cameron Peak fire.  The maps of that fire reminded me that we can talk past each other when people write “fuel treatment in the “backcountry” can’t help protect communities” and in some parts of the country with current megafires, we actually don’t have a “backcountry.”

Editor’s Note: Tyler A. Beeton and Katarina Warnick are Research Associates with the Colorado Forest Restoration Institute at Colorado State University. They recently took part in a well-attended February, 2021 virtual workshop hosted by the Rocky Mountain Research Station’s (RMRS) Wildfire Risk Management Science team (WRMS). The workshop focused on Potential Operational Delineations also called PODs. The POD framework is an emerging collaborative spatial fire planning and decision support tool. Here Tyler and Katarina share their perspective on three key themes that emerged from the February workshop. They focus on how PODs can change the game for fire operations, strategic multi-year restoration investment and planning, and co-managing wildfire risk.

It was clear from the get-go that we weren’t the only ones excited for the inaugural Potential Operational Delineations (PODs) Collaborative Fire Planning Workshop, hosted by the Rocky Mountain Research Station’s (RMRS) Wildfire Risk Management Science team (WRMS) held virtually in February 2021. Well over 500 people registered in just 3 weeks after registration went live, which maxed out the Zoom room capacity and forced the planning committee to close registration. This event and topic was something folks were ready to engage on. And there is reason why – the PODs process is an exciting and emerging framework that leverages local expertise with sophisticated modeling tools to identify features on the landscape – the streams, roads, ridges and fire scars – that have a high likelihood of containing a fire (see example below). Since taking off, the PODs framework has been developed and deployed in different contexts across the United States (over 40 national forests and counting). And while PODs were initially envisioned to support incident management, managers and communities have expanded the application of this tool in a number of ways. Several key themes related to the potential benefits of PODs emerged from the workshop, here are three.

PODs network on the Pike San Isabel National Forests. Fire managers deliberate and hand-draw effective control lines based on their local knowledge and spatial analytical tools. The control lines are then digitized to develop the PODs network seen here.


Shifting strategy from random acts of restoration to a targeted approach

Several individuals emphasized that the current model of ‘stands and compartments’ vegetation management where ‘random acts of restoration’ occur opportunistically on the landscape have been largely unsuccessful at managing wildfire at scale. Big, bad fires are still happening and worsening, and the social and ecological impacts are significant. Panelists and participants noted that PODs provide a framework to shift our strategy to long-term, landscape-scale treatment prioritization. The scale of actions needed to restore fire-adapted ecosystems is immense, and it is impractical to treat the entire landscape. Using the adage ‘the only way to eat an elephant is one bite at time,’ one panelist suggested the need to strategically restore landscapes one POD at a time. Doing so could contribute to meaningful outcomes at meaningful scales, in this case changing wildfire behavior across the “fireshed”. A fireshed is conceptually similar to a watershed, though is defined as areas that encompass similar wildfire risk and where the identification and prioritization of treatments can modify wildfire behavior (Bahro et al. 2007).

The Arapaho Roosevelt National Forests leadership tested this new model of thinking. Forest managers worked with partners to construct a line of PODs running north to south slated for thinning treatments and prescribed fire, the goals of which were to inhibit fire spread and protect communities and other assets to the east. This line of defense was tested during the 2020 Cameron Peak Fire, the largest wildfire in Colorado state history. Although the fire occurred before the strategy was fully implemented, fire behavior was significantly modified in most cases where it interacted with treated PODs and previous fire scars. Check out the video below depicting the fire spread, dark red polygons depict previous fire scars. Blue polygons denote PODs that were treated (thinning, burned) prior to the fire.

This shows that if the management objective is to change wildfire behavior and risk across large landscapes, there is a need for a multi-year restoration strategy. PODs provide a useful way to carve up the landscape making it more manageable for restoration and more relevant for fire operations. In addition, PODs can provide more meaningful outcomes and a more useful and visual tool in communicating the “what” and “why” of management actions across specialists, organizations and communities. Lastly, the strategy of collaborative planning allows for a shift in focus from standard performance-measures that emphasize outputs, such as timber volume, to outcomes that promote resilient landscapes and communities.

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